Surviving The Festive Season
When I was a child, I couldn’t understand why the grownups would huff and puff and argue at Christmas, surely it was the most wonderful time of the year? Then I became an adult with responsibilities that exceeded circling all the toys I wanted in the Argos catalogue and all the films I would watch in the Radio Times- anyone who grew up in the 80s will relate.
Now, I too feel all kinds of conflicting emotions around Christmas, but as the years pass I have learned some things that may help you navigate what is often a most difficult time of the year, especially when it comes to food and taking care of ourselves.
The first step is to identify your triggers; the festive season courtesy of Hollywood, and now social media, is highly polished and edited, and although we know this, we subconsciously absorb it all and when the reality of Christmas doesn’t live up to these impossible versions we feel like a failure.
For many who don’t have a Hallmark family or relationship, this time of year shines a spotlight on us and feelings of loneliness are compounded. The other side of this isn’t always much better, spending time with family members in a confined space, many of whom you don’t see at any other time of year, and finding yourself behaving like a teenager again, or navigating difficult in-laws or competitive siblings can be equally challenging.
The festive season holds a magnifying glass to anything you may be currently working through, often confronting us with any grief, conflict, illness, financial worries that may be under the surface.
Stress & anxiety relief
All of these stressors can trigger overeating for comfort, undereating when stressed and depressed, plus overindulgence in foods and or alcohol that might not be the most nourishing physically or mentally. It’s also really common to get sick once we stop. As always, it’s about balance, binging or extreme restriction are not the solution. All the foods that seem to be everywhere this season are also available any other time of year, so why are we suddenly compelled to consume a whole tin of quality streets in one sitting?
Anxiety and fearful avoidance of traditional festive foods can be equally problematic. Slow down and enjoy some festive foods in moderation, but be aware that the combinations of sugar/fats/salt in many party foods are highly addictive so the more you have the more you’ll need. Alcohol has a lot to answer for here, when we’re hungover we crave more junk food, and late nights also disrupt our blood sugar sending us reaching for the biscuit tin. It’s a good time to adopt a more mindful approach and just take a moment before you reach for that second mince pie, ask yourself am I tired? Bored? Upset? Stressed? Or actually hungry? And then instead of wolfing down these ‘forbidden’ treats, eat them slowly and savour them; food should be enjoyed and not a trigger for guilt.
Stress levels run high this time of year and craving salty foods can be a sign your adrenals are under pressure. Foods to support your adrenal health include oily fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel, lean meats, beans and pulses, nuts, whole grains and leafy green vegetables.
Vitamin C is also rapidly used up in times of stress, so look to seasonal fruits like oranges and dark berries to top up your reserves. Magnesium is the relax mineral, I add magnesium salts to warm baths with a few drops of lavender to aid sleep. Magnesium supplements are also something I recommend regularly for stress, anxiety, low moods and sleep., typically in doses of 200-800mg daily. It works in synergy with calcium which is the mineral that allow muscles to contract, magnesium has the opposite effect and releases the contraction. Magnesium also docks to receptors in the central nervous system, helping to reduce activity within your system and to calm you down.
Dark chocolate is also a good source of magnesium; you could melt a few squares into a cup of warm almond milk with some cinnamon for a nourishing and calming festive drink. If you really feel like it’s all too much try supplementing with a herbal adaptogen- adaptogens are herbs whose actions are neither stimulating or sedating, they simply help the body adapt to increased external stressors, getting you through difficult time and protecting you from the harmful effects of stress.
High stress hormones suppress the immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to picking up seasonal coughs and colds. So again, keep your fruit and veg intake high, dark leafy greens and nourishing winter root vegetables are all great. Oats, mushrooms, and goji berries all contains polysaccharides which stimulate the immune system. Try adding antimicrobial spices like cinnamon, cloves, star anise, ginger and turmeric to everything. A warming cup of lemon, honey and ginger with some added spices can make a festive but medicinal brew if you feel the sniffles coming.
Honey is always a favourite for colds- a good old honey and lemon consistently beats commercial cough syrups in clinical trials. The main benefit is in soothing a dry cough by coating the dried membranes of the throat soothing the irritation. Do note that heat will kill some of the beneficial enzymes in any honey so don’t stick a spoonful into piping hot drinks, but wait until they have cooled slightly and then add.
Celebrating and overindulging are often simply a reality of the season, so support your liver with plenty of these liver loving foods: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussel sprouts, garlic, parsley, spinach, beetroot, and the spices turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin.
You could try some milk thistle- tea or tincture is best as it’s the bitter taste that stimulates the liver. It’s a good thing to take a few days before the big party.
The liver not only processes alcohol but also all your hormones including the stress ones like cortisol, which is why you can often feel much more anxious after a heavy night. In terms of the best alcohol to choose, I’d opt for natural red wines which contain some antioxidants, clear spirits like vodka with soda and fresh lime. Steer clear of sugary choices like prosecco and sweet mixers and try to stick to the same drink, alternated with water throughout the night.
It’s also not the time to avoid carbohydrates as whole grains provide many of the B vitamins needed to support your energy, metabolism, detoxification and hormonal balance.
This festive season I’ll be piling my plate with a riot of colourful vegetables brussel sprouts, red cabbage, parsnips, and carrots, for antioxidants and liver support. Turkey, rich in tryptophan the precursor to serotonin the happy hormone.
I’ll be eating smoked salmon on rye bread for healthy fats, some blue cheese on oat cakes for beneficial bacteria, and sipping on some good quality red wine. You’ll also find me snacking on nuts and oranges along with the odd mince pie and mulled wine (full of beneficial spices), and some magnesium rich dark chocolates, with the odd purple quality street thrown in for good measure. I will also be saying no when I’ve had enough and taking some time to rest and reflect on the year that’s passed.
Maya Oakley is a registered nutritional therapist who can be found at Nourished London and @nourishedlondon on Instagram